Queensland is the Sunshine State, known for its sultry climate and year-round holiday weather. But up in the far north, between November and April each year, cyclones – known in the northern hemisphere as hurricanes – are a part of life in the tropics, with an average of four or five forming each season. While it’s rare for these cyclones to escalate into full-blown destructive storms, big ones do come a’crashing: in February 2011, Cyclone Yasi smashed into the coast around Mission Beach with winds estimated at up to 300km/h, ripping through the towns of Tully and Cardwell and islands including Dunk, Bedarra and Hinchinbrook. Hundreds of homes along the coast between Innisfail and Ingham were severely damaged, banana plantations and cane fields flattened, and areas of national park rainforest pummelled. Amazingly, there were no deaths or serious injuries.
During the season, keep a sharp ear out for cyclone predictions and alerts. If a cyclone watch or warning is issued, stay tuned to local radio and monitor the Bureau of Meteorology website (www.bom.gov.au) for updates and advice. Locals tend to be complacent about cyclones, but will still buy out the bottle shop when a threat is imminent!
The Cassowary: Endangered Native
Like something out of Jurassic Park, this flightless prehistoric bird struts through the rainforest. It’s as tall as a grown man, has three razor-sharp, dagger-style clawed toes, a bright-blue head, red wattles (the lobes hanging from its neck), a helmet-like horn, and shaggy black feathers similar to an emu’s. Meet the cassowary, an important link in the rainforest ecosystem. It’s the only animal capable of dispersing the seeds of more than 70 species of trees whose fruit is too large for other rainforest animals to digest and pass (which acts as fertiliser). You’re most likely to see cassowaries in the wild around Mission Beach, Etty Bay and the Cape Tribulation section of the Daintree National Park. They can be aggressive, particularly if they have chicks. Do not approach them; if one threatens you, don’t run – give the bird right-of-way and try to keep something solid between you and it, preferably a tree.
It is estimated that there are 1000 or less cassowaries in the wild north of Queensland. An endangered species, the cassowary’s biggest threat is loss of habitat, and most recently the cause has been natural. Tropical Cyclone Yasi stripped much of the rainforest around Mission Beach bare, threatening the struggling population with starvation. The cyclone also left the birds exposed to the elements, and more vulnerable to dog attacks and cars as they venture out in search of food.
Next to the Mission Beach visitor centre, there are cassowary conservation displays at the Wet Tropics Environment Centre, staffed by volunteers from the Community for Cassowary & Coastal Conservation (www.cassowaryconservation.asn.au). Proceeds from gift-shop purchases go towards buying cassowary habitat. The website www.savethecassowary.org.au is also a good source of info.